Lists of Nobel Prizes and Laureates

 Conflict Map

Wars in the 20th Century and Nobel Peace Prize Statistics


Alfred Nobel made the prediction that the use of high explosives like dynamite in weaponry might eventually lead to the extinction of war: The day that two army corps can annihilate one another in one second, the civilised nations will shrink from war and discharge their troops.1 Nobel may have foreseen the mechanism of deterrence, but he was wrong in one important way. Although the invention of nuclear weapons, which Nobel clearly could not foresee, actually made it possible for armies to destroy each other "in one second", it did not lead to the discharge of troops or the abolition of war.

   World War I - a European tragedy. British soldiers march to trenches near Ypres in Belgium were major battles took place in 1914, 1915 and 1917.
Photo: ©SCANPIX/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS


Nobel made another prediction, that if peace was not at hand within thirty years, the world would revert to barbarism. Unfortunately, he was quite right about this. Less than twenty years after his death, World War I started in 1914, inaugurating the age of total war. The civilised nations that Nobel had referred to employed their economic, industrial and military strength in a four-year war that became a veritable bloodbath, fought out mainly on the European continent. During the 20th century, mankind experienced some of the most destructive wars of all times. The conflict map presented here, locates most of the wars between 1899 and 2001. Hopefully it may also serve to highlight some general trends in the evolution of war over time.

Alfred Nobel wanted his prizes to be international. Nationality should not be a criterion for selecting a laureate, as Nobel explicitly stated in his will: It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be Scandinavian or not.2 The Norwegian Nobel Committee took Nobel's wish seriously, but many years were to pass before the Prize became truly global. The laureates during the first 35 years were all Western Europeans, North Americans or international organisations. Until the mid-1970s this trend prevailed with a few notable exceptions. The same tendency was reflected among the nominees. Statistics on the geographical distribution of laureates and nominees from 1901-2001 are made available here.

Wars in the 20th Century3

General Trends

War did not decline during the course of the 20th century, but there were some remarkable changes regarding the types of war that were fought. From 1900 to 1910, wars of all categories were represented rather evenly, whereas from 1990 to 2000 most were civil wars. Today there are few interstate wars with clearly defined parties, but civil wars have become increasingly internationalised. Few internal wars today take place without the intervention of foreign states. One illustrative example is the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where as many as five neighbouring states are involved. The shift from interstate to civil war is perhaps the most significant change that has occurred in the last century. Of course civil wars have always existed, but only recently have they become the dominant type of war.

The period between 1914 and 1945 was profoundly marked by two world wars. World War I (1914-1918) was the first total war, mobilising whole societies in order to supply the armies with soldiers and weapons. The late 1920s and early 1930s were fairly peaceful in Europe, but important conflicts took place in Asia, particularly in China. Most significant were the civil war between the Kuomintang and the communists, the Japanese occupation of Manchuria from 1931, and from 1937 the Sino-Japanese War. World War II (1939-1945) started as a European war, but as a result of Japanese and American involvement, a major part of the fighting also took place in South-East Asia and the Pacific Ocean.

The process of decolonisation had important consequences on the overall number of wars as well as the types of war that were fought. Since 1975, there have been very few colonial wars or wars of independence. During the first half of the century, most colonial wars were about maintaining control over territory previously conquered by the European colonial powers. After World War II the number of wars of independence increased sharply, and decolonisation was almost completed by the mid-70s when Portugal finally granted independence to Angola and Mozambique. Unfortunately, independence did not always lead to peace. In Angola and Mozambique the result was civil war. East Timor was invaded by Indonesia shortly after independence was declared in 1975, leading to a second protracted period of colonial rule but this time under Jakarta. Vietnam is another example. France fought a war for almost ten years before the French forces were defeated and withdrew in 1954. The colonial war was followed by a civil war between communists and anti-communists. This internal conflict became an international war during the 1960s as US involvement steadily increased. There was no peace in Vietnam until 1975.

   Franco-Vietnamese troops landing at Dien Bien Phu during the decisive battle of the French war in Indochina. The victory of communist Viet Minh forces led to French approval of the Geneva Accords in 1954, dividing Vietnam into a communist north and a non-communist south.
Photo: ©Bettmann/CORBIS/SCANPIX


Another important change that took place during the 20th century, is related to conflict locations. Before 1945, Europe was the most war-prone continent. Most significant in this respect were the two world wars. Many wars outside the continent also had European involvement. After 1945 this situation changed drastically, when most wars were fought in the less developed countries of Africa and Asia. There are two main reasons for this development. First, decolonisation and the wars of independence contributed to the increase of war in Africa and Asia. The second reason for this geographical shift can be related to the Cold War from 1945 to 1989. The emergence of the US and the Soviet Union as superpowers and nuclear protagonists deterred the two sides from engaging in direct, armed confrontation in Europe. On the surface there was therefore peace in Europe, but the tension between East and West was considerable. The nuclear threat did not stop the superpowers from intervening elsewhere in the world by conventional means. The Cold War was therefore cold only in Europe.

The US participated in the Korean War (1950-1953) and prevented communist-led North Korea from taking control over the entire Korean peninsula. China was directly involved in the war, and made a large contribution of troops to the communist side. American participation in the Vietnam War (1965-1975) was less successful. Deployment of considerable US forces could not prevent victory for North Vietnam. Again, the communists received substantial military support from the Soviet Union and China. The USSR assisted anti-western regimes in the Middle East and supported communist movements around the world. In 1979, Soviet forces intervened in Afghanistan to secure continued communist rule in the country. The occupation lasted for ten years. The US provided considerable support for the non-communist Mujahedin forces. The Cold War reinforced the ideological dimension of several local conflicts that became an arena for indirect confrontation between the Soviet Union and the US. Superpower intervention may have contributed to a prolongation of these wars, therefore making them more severe. But there are also cases where the superpowers acted as a restraining force on the adversaries, thus preventing further escalation. This was the case during several crises in the Middle East.

The end of the Cold War had little effect when it came to ending wars. In fact it marked the return of war to the European continent, with the disintegration of Yugoslavia followed by wars in Croatia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992-1995. Some of the new states in Eastern Europe, created as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, have experienced continuous unrest since their independence. Georgia and Armenia are examples of this. The secessionist republic of Chechnya is involved in a war against the Russian army. Old conflicts that one thought would have been easier to solve after the Cold War are still going on, for example in the Middle East. In Africa, the 1990s brought new wars to Algeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Rwanda.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureates and War

Only a relatively small number of wars have ended as a result of direct intervention by a Peace Prize laureate. In some cases laureates have tried to end a conflict but without success. We distinguish between the mediators that have tried to reconcile the conflicting parties, and the negotiators representing the parties, but who sought to end the war by negotiation rather than military means.


There are six clear-cut examples of prizes to peace mediators. US President Theodore Roosevelt was honoured in 1906 for his successful mediation in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. Carlos Saavedra Lamas, foreign minister of Argentina, was the main architect behind the 1935 armistice that ended the Chaco war between Bolivia and Paraguay. He received the Peace Prize in 1936. In 1950, the UN mediator Ralph Bunche was selected by the Norwegian Nobel Committee for mediating a truce in the Palestine War (1948-1949) between Israel and neighbouring Arab states. During the Sinai War in 1956, Canada's foreign minister and an active participant in the UN General Assembly, Lester Pearson, provided the solution that ended the fighting and permitted the withdrawal of the Israeli, British, French and Egyptian armies. The key element in the cease-fire agreement was the deployment of the UN's first peace-keeping force, the UN Emergency Force. This accomplishment was the main motivation behind the award to Pearson in 1957. UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld was awarded the Peace Prize posthumously in 1961 for his work to promote peaceful solutions of armed conflicts, most importantly in Congo, where he died in a plane crash before any settlement could be reached.

The six mediators who received the Peace Prize (from left): Theodore Roosevelt, Carlos Saavedra Lamas, Ralph Bunche, Lester Pearson, Dag Hammarskjöld and Oscar Arias.


Oscar Arias Sanchez, the 1987 laureate, arranged the Central American peace plan that laid the basis for lasting peace and stability in the region. By the early 1990s, the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador had ended and elections were held. In Guatemala a peace agreement was concluded in 1996.

Slightly different from the other mediators is the 1988 laureate, the UN Peace-keeping Forces. Beyond actual mediation, they are charged with the task of upholding cease-fire agreements and peace treaties. Three previous laureates – Bunche, Pearson and Hammarskjöld – were instrumental in setting up the Peace-keeping Forces, which by 1988 had become a powerful institution within the UN system. It has been involved in more than 50 operations, of which 15 missions are currently ongoing.


Some prizes have been awarded to parties in armed conflicts, which have sought a negotiated settlement. The first prize of this type was the joint award in 1973 to US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho (who declined the prize). In an attempt to end the Vietnam War, the two had signed a cease-fire agreement in January 1973, but this failed. Fighting continued throughout 1973, and the war did not end until North Vietnam had secured a military victory in 1975.

Five laureates from the Middle East were parties in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and were awarded prizes for their efforts to reach a viable solution for the region. Menachem Begin, Israeli prime minister, and Anwar al-Sadat, Egypt's President, were honoured jointly in 1978, as an encouragement to continue the rapprochement initiated by Sadat's journey to Jerusalem in 1977. Aided by US president Jimmy Carter, the two statesmen concluded the Camp David Accords in 1979. It was a virtual peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, much more far-reaching than the cease-fire agreements of 1949, 1956 and 1967. Egypt formally recognised Israel as a state, and Israel ceded the Egyptian territory it had occupied during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

One of the core issues in the Middle East conflict is the Palestinian question. The war following the establishment of Israel in 1948 caused a huge refugee problem among the Palestinian population, of whom 800,000 fled Israeli territory and settled in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Israeli repression, Palestinian guerrilla warfare and terrorism seemed to lock the parties in an endless circle of violence. The vicious circle was, for a short time, broken by the three Peace Prize laureates of 1994: Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO); Shimon Peres, Israeli foreign minister; and Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of Israel. Secret negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis in Oslo had laid the foundation for a possible peace process. However, after the assassination of Rabin in 1995, extremists on both sides gained in influence, and subsequent efforts to keep the process on track were not successful. Today, there is little left of the optimism from 1994, as Palestinian extremist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad continue to attack Israel, and a Likud-dominated Israel under prime minister Ariel Sharon strikes out against Palestinian civilians and the Palestinian Authority led by Arafat.

The South African experience is an example of a peace process with an unambiguously positive outcome. Although there was no actual war between the apartheid regime and the African National Congress (ANC) opposition, there was much political violence, particularly between 1989 and 1993. The 1993 Nobel laureates, Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk, both played a central role in the peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa. In February 1990, de Klerk announced Mandela's release from prison after 27 years. Along with several reforms in the country's racist legislation, this indicated that dramatic changes were about to take place. After years of difficult negotiations, elections were held in 1994. Nelson Mandela became the first president of a democratic South Africa. The new government achieved a reasonable degree of reconciliation between the victims of the apartheid regime and the former oppressors, but there are still enormous challenges to be faced in the fields of law and order, social justice and public health, particularly in limiting the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Some of the negotiators who represented parties in a conflict (from left): Anwar al-Sadat, Menachem Begin, Nelson Mandela, Frederik de Klerk, John Hume and David Trimble.

The laureates from 1998, John Hume and David Trimble, were crucial to the Good Friday Agreement that brought the conflict in Northern Ireland closer to an end. Since the award, further progress in the peace process has been made, although there have been setbacks and the conflict between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Republicans is far from resolved.

Mediation and negotiation are only two types of peace work considered by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, but these prizes are often among the most controversial.4 For instance, the attempts to encourage the negotiators in the Vietnam War and the Middle East were widely criticised. Critics argue that the Nobel Committee should not interfere in peace processes, particularly where the outcome is still uncertain, and there is no guarantee that these laureates will refrain from violence in the future.

Nobel Peace Prize Statistics

General Trends

During the first century of the Nobel Peace Prize, there were 107 laureates from different parts of the world. Alfred Nobel's intention was to create an international prize, a wish that was upheld by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. However, it took the committee a long time before it started to look beyond the western world for suitable candidates. Globalisation of the prize was a very slow process. From 1901 to 1975 only four laureates did not come from Western Europe or North America.

Chart 1:
Geographical distribution of Peace Prize laureates 1901-2000.


Carlos Saavedra Lamas was the first Latin American to receive the Prize, in 1936. Not until 1960 was an African, Albert Lutuli, awarded the Prize. It took 73 years before a person from Asia was awarded. Vietnam's Le Duc Tho declined the prize in 1973, and Eisaku Sato, the 1974 laureate, was therefore the first Asian to actually receive it. To some extent this can be explained by the distribution of nominees. Most of the candidates were North Americans, Europeans or international organisations. During the first 25 years of the Peace Prize, only 10 per cent of the nominees were "non-western". Between 1926 and 1950 the figure was 17 per cent.

From 1975 onwards, the record of the Nobel Committee has greatly improved when it comes to a more even geographical distribution of the laureates. As we see from Chart 2, a substantial share of the nominees still came from Western Europe and North America. Nevertheless, the most dramatic shift over the last century occurred with the reduced number of nominees from Western Europe. Although it is still one of the largest categories, the reduction is striking when compared with the period 1901-1925, when 68 per cent of the candidates and 74 per cent of the laureates were Western Europeans.

Another important tendency is the increased number of nominations from Asia during the last 30 years. In 1971-1980, Asian candidates accounted for about 10 per cent of the nominees. Between 1991 and 2000, this had risen to 25 per cent. The result was more laureates from this region. However, a high proportion of nominees is no guarantee for a prize. During the last 20 years, the number of North American candidates remained fairly high, but during the same period there have been only two laureates from this region (Elie Wiesel and Jody Williams).

Africa has always had a low number of nominees, but still accounts for six peace laureates: Albert Lutuli, Anwar al-Sadat, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Frederik de Klerk, and Kofi Annan. Less than ten per cent of the nominees during the 1990s were Africans, but three of the six African laureates were awarded in the last decade. The fact that four of the laureates were from South Africa indicates that the Nobel Committee had a particular interest in the struggle against apartheid.
Eastern Europe has been a small category both in the number of laureates and nominations. Its percentage of nominees was particularly low during the Cold War. The communist regimes in this region viewed the Nobel Prize as an instrument for the western powers, and on the whole did not encourage nominations. The three laureates from Eastern Europe were all closely linked to Cold War issues. Andrei Sakharov (1975) was a dissident in the Soviet Union, and the award represented a clear criticism of the Soviet government's neglect of basic human rights. Lech Walesa (1983) was the leader of the illegal Polish trade union Solidarity, which opposed the communist regime. Because of government repression, neither was able to leave for Oslo to receive the prize in person. The third laureate, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1990), was crucial in ending the Cold War.

Chart 3:
Nominees 1961-2000 by decade.

In general, we can state that the Peace Prize has changed from being a prize for Western Europeans and North Americans to become a global prize. This is largely reflected in both the number of nominees and the number of laureates from each region. This development is connected to some of the general trends in 20th century world politics. During the first half, Europe was the most powerful and influential region. Consequently, the focus of the Nobel Committee was for a long time on Western Europe. World War II was a major turning point, after which Europe's power and influence rapidly declined. It took some years before this decline was reflected in a decrease in Western European nominees and laureates.

In the course of the last twenty years, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, globalisation has made the world smaller. It is easier for the less powerful regions to influence the agenda of world politics, but this development has also created new challenges regarding distribution of wealth, environmental problems and international security. The Nobel Committee has been influenced by this development, and the globalisation of the Peace Prize that started in the 1970s and gained strength during the 1980s has really accelerated during the 1990s. It is possible that this process is to some extent self-reinforcing, so that when the Committee decides on a laureate from Latin America, for instance, this may trigger nominations in favour of new candidates from that region. Today, there is a more even geographical distribution of laureates and nominees than ever before. Although Africa and Latin America are still underrepresented in terms of nominations, they have held up better in the choice of laureates. As the Nobel Peace Prize moves into its second century, it has become a truly global prize.

Chart 4:
Nominees in 2001.

In 2001 North America was the largest group, with 25 per cent of the candidates, closely followed by Asia and Western Europe. Eastern Europe and Latin America accounted for 8 and 10 per cent, respectively. This corresponds largely to the situation between 1991 and 2000. Nominees from Africa represented only 2 per cent of the total last year. However, Kofi Annan, who shared the Prize with the UN, is indeed African This illustrates the fact that there is no clear correlation between the number of nominees from one region and the Nobel Committee's decisions.



1. Cited by Sven Tägil, "War and Peace in the Thinking of Alfred Nobel".

2. See "Excerpts from the will of Alfred Nobel".

3. See also Eric Hobsbawm, " War and Peace in the 20th Century". Video of his presentation at the Nobel Peace Prize Centennial Symposium, December 2001.

4. See "Controversies and Criticism", by Øyvind Tønnesson.



By Dag Axel Kristoffersen, The Norwegian Nobel Institute
Illustrations by Jonas Anderson

First published 12 April 2002


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